The King ran his fingers through his long black beard. "Diplomacy is not your strong point, but perhaps that is not important."
Aree replied, "I know I am a terrible diplomat. But according to your job announcement, you are looking for a bodyguard, not an ambassador."
"Your boldness is refreshing," the king told her. "I like a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind."
The queen stroked his face with a long finger.
"That is a good thing, since you are married to one."
The prince rolled his eyes.
The King tapped a button in the arm of his throne and looked down, nodding occasionally as he read through Aree's credentials. "You have certainly worked with a variety of people. And weapons. Why are you interested in this position?"
"I have not decided whether or not I am interested. The announcement is vague. I need more information. You offered nothing specific about the nature of the task."
"Then why did you apply?" the King pressed.
"I completed my last obligation, so I decided to find out what you need."
The thick man beside the queen grumbled something that included the words, "inadvisable" and
"upstart" and "inhuman."
The queen did not appear to be paying attention to his objection. The rulers glanced at each other and nodded. Queen Eleanor rose from her seat and came with dignity and grace down the steps to stand in front of Aree. "Our son wants to do some traveling on his own, without his family."
"You have enough security guards in the… castle to protect a small planetoid. Why not send one of them to look after him?"
The grumbly guard announced, "Exactly what I had advised Her Majesty. I even offered to protect him myself if it would put her noble heart at ease."
"Joran, your concerns have been previously noted, considered, and dismissed. Thank you." The queen turned and addressed her son. "I am of an opinion—"
"What else is new," the prince complained.
"Crispin, you are not a child anymore. Behave yourself." She made a visible effort to muster self-control before returning her gaze and attention to Aree.
"I will only allow him to have his way under one condition." She waved off the retort he was ready to make with a flick of her hand. "I want him to travel in disguise, as a regular citizen."
"What? You never told me that. Why do I have to go as a commoner?"
Before Aree could stop herself, she said,
"Probably because you need to know how average people live so you have some hope of being a decent ruler."
"Exactly," the queen said.
Aree observed, "But you could send him with a bodyguard who already works for you."
"He needs to broaden his experience to work with people he has not known all his life."
Aree suspected there might be more to it than that. "What kind of danger do you anticipate?"
The queen returned to her seat. "There is always the possibility of trouble."
"True. What exactly are you expecting?" The queen was obviously a shrewd woman, unwilling to give too much information until she felt safe doing so. Aree could easily understand and respect that.
The prince leaned forward and grabbed the arms of his seat so hard his knuckles turned white. He smelled of fear. Apparently, he had not considered that his life could be in danger.
The king said, "What commoner travels with security? Our guards have been guards for their whole career."
Aree reasoned, "You want a protector who does not act like a guard, so no attention is drawn to him."
The king elaborated. "We expect him to have difficulty taking on an assumed identity."
"So you need someone who can help him create a believable persona."
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